'Dynasty' Creators Divide Their Tasks and Conquer Their Fantasy Terrain

Times Staff Writer

Richard does the writing; Esther does the talking.

It's a little more complex than that, of course--but Richard and Esther Shapiro, co-executive producers of "Dynasty," say that has been the basic division of labor since the couple created the most opulent of television's soap operas in 1979.

Richard Shapiro, speaking by phone from a mountain hideaway where he often works alone (you don't call him, he calls you), says he considers himself a writer first and an executive second. Although he says the pair worked closely together in the early years of the show, he now leaves the business of being spokesperson, manager and cheerleader for "Dynasty" to his wife. The pair have been collaborating for 30 years and have been married for 27.

He is more than willing to let Esther explain why "Dynasty," now in its eighth season and airing at 10 p.m. Wednesdays, has managed to survive so long. Although a little of the "Dynasty" luster has faded in the past two seasons as the show has slipped in the ratings, "Dynasty"--described in one ABC news release as "the explosive, turbulent and romantic saga of intrigue, love and greed"--reigned as the top-rated show in America in 1984 and 1985, edging out CBS' "Dallas" for the No. 1 spot.

And Esther Shapiro, sitting by the fireside of the Shapiros' cozy Beverly Hills home on a gray morning, shoulders the task happily--anticipating questions before they are asked, bouncing swiftly but logically from one subject to the next. "I talk fast," she offers in a masterpiece of understatement.

Although quick to credit her husband and the other executive producers of the show, Aaron Spelling and Douglas S. Cramer, for their role in the show's success, she is the undisputed captain of the ship.

"I like making it happen," she says. "Richard leaves that aspect up to me. I think somebody has to enjoy that, whether they created the show or not. One day I woke up and said, 'I really am in control.' It is always easier for me to take charge, rather than to take direction."

"Sometimes I feel like the Dr. (Michael) DeBakey of television," she adds shyly, referring to the legendary pioneer of cardiac surgery. "I have this wonderful team, but somebody has to know what each one's specialty is."

John Forsythe, who stars as Blake Carrington, patriarch of "Dynasty's" oil-rich Carrington clan, calls Esther Shapiro "an exceptionally bright lady with very good ideas."

"I think she would have been absolutely incredible as the first female head of a network," Forsythe says of Shapiro, who was formerly vice president of novels and miniseries at ABC during the era of "Roots," "Masada" and "East of Eden." "She commands attention and respect."

Robert and Eileen Pollock, supervising producers on the show since its first season and creators of the now-defunct spinoff "Dynasty II: The Colbys," credit Shapiro for knowing the best way to assemble a production team.

"What Esther thinks about people who should work on 'Dynasty,' " Eileen Pollock says, "is, 'Would I like to have dinner with them?' Is there an element of urbanity, of sophistication, of fantasy?' "

Adds Robert Pollock: "She has a very good story instinct; she's not as good at story creation. She knows what is going to turn on audiences, what is going to light up the skies, what is contemporary, what is current--and what is going to be dreary on television."

Esther Shapiro says she and her husband first conceived "Dynasty" as pure entertainment aimed at women. Although she says "Dynasty's" worldwide audience contains plenty of men, she acknowledges that she wanted to make sure women, especially older women, took part in the glittering fantasy.

Her dream of bringing power and glamour to the over-40 woman was realized in Linda Evans, 45, and Joan Collins, 54, who play patriarch Blake Carrington's saintly wife Krystle and his shrewish, sex-goddess ex-wife, Alexis, respectively. And Diahann Carroll, 52, temporarily made waves a few seasons back as the wealthy mystery woman, Dominique Deveraux.

Shapiro gloats that her stars, at first rejected as "too old" for the covers of magazines, soon became some of the most-photographed women in the world.

"Critics dismiss it ('Dynasty') as trash," she says, seemingly unperturbed by this fact. "But we do create women (characters) who are not victims, and it's pure entertainment for women--that's something that has been looked down on.

"It is basically not only a women's power fantasy, but the fantasy of a woman (Krystle) who is married to a man of power and very comfortable with that," she continues. "We did not want to send out the message that all women have to be the same thing."

And Shapiro is delighted to find herself, through creating and executive-producing "Dynasty," living out her own power fantasies.

Apart from the show itself, she has become head of another dynasty, built on licensing the "Dynasty" name to luxury products such as perfumes, furs, evening wear and lingerie. Shapiro spends time on the road each year promoting the products to buyers across the country. Profits from about 25 licensees have kept "Dynasty" from having to be produced at a deficit cost to the production company, she says; the "Dynasty" perfumes, Forever Krystle and the men's fragrance Carrington, grossed more than $40 million in 1987.

"In some ways, I became my own fantasy, heading up a whole empire like this," Shapiro says. "I didn't want to be Alexis--I really wanted to be Blake. I've said it before, but it's true."

She attributes the longstanding success of "Dynasty" to the producers' uncanny prediction of the economic climate that would be created by Reaganomics; the show went on the air the same week Ronald Reagan entered the White House.

"We sort of anticipated the Reagan era, viscerally," Shapiro says. "We picked up on the glitz and glamour of it, we predicted what would happen with the stock market years before it happened. The pomp and circumstance, the new wealth--all of that was reflected."

"We do tend to be of a liberal persuasion, personally and politically," Richard says, almost apologetically. "But our daughter accuses us of being the world's primary disseminators of capitalist propaganda."

The only time the show has foundered, Esther maintains, was in 1985, when the Shapiros' attentions were diverted by their lawsuit against Aaron Spelling over ownership of the show (it was amicably settled), and by developing "Dynasty II: The Colbys."

Now, after about 200 fast-paced "Dynasty" episodes, however, the Shapiros acknowledge that surprise is harder to create. "We've used up what would be in the daytime soap operas about 25 years of story," Esther laments.

In addition, since the show's first episode, production costs have escalated from about $1 million to about $1.6 million per show. Some of the stars' salaries have escalated five or six times since the beginning. "You have to begin to assess whether it's worth it--for everyone involved," Esther muses.

The Shapiros' contract with ABC expires at the end of this season, as do those of the series stars. The Reagan era ends in '88, and the prime-time soap opera genre has been declared moribund more than once in recent days due to slipping ratings for "Dallas," "Falcon Crest" and "Dynasty." Moreover, Esther Shapiro is beginning to develop other TV projects, including a series about a women's medical clinic.

She is, however, nowhere near preparing a funeral for "Dynasty."

"The show's on a roll now," she says. "Our (new) young stars are bringing in younger viewers. We're getting more into reality, without giving up the fantasy. We're doing a football-and-drug-use story, a surrogate mother story. And the future of the Carrington children will reflect the recent disaster on Wall Street."

The Shapiros are also taking advantage of election year to advance Esther's favorite theme of women and power: Alexis is running against Blake Carrington for governor.

"There's a trend in television right now to do slice-of-life, reality programming, like 'thirtysomething,' " Richard said, referring to ABC's new series about a young professional couple bemused by life after the birth of their first child. "I don't think audiences respond as well to that as they do to shows like 'Dynasty,' " he added dryly. "Personally, I just can't stand to listen to that baby crying."

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